What We Can’t Make Here Any More

James McMurtry’s song is an anthem of American decline and blue collar job loss.  He sings the suffering of honest working people at the hands of Bain-like financial analysts who can wring profit from balance sheet transactions that do not take the effect on human lives into the accounting. From this sad ballad I springboard into several areas I don’t know much about. Call it an opinion piece.

Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing, both hands free
No one’s paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget’s stretched so thin
And there’s more comin’ home from the Mideast war
We can’t make it here anymore

My dad was in the Army. In the early 70s he was discharged on a 95% mental disability after his tour in  Vietnam. He had a monthly benefit check that would go pretty quickly to local businesses: the liquor store, the craft shop and finally the pet shop of all places. At the craft shop he would buy model airplane kits, the kind where all the parts are cast from plastic molds and you assemble all the pieces, paint them, and apply decals. After filling every nook in the house with fighters, bombers and such his interest turned to pet birds. The point is I suppose he had a roof, he had a check, and he was pretty crazy. When he left (something abut a restraining order) he ended up in the Veterans Domiciliary in White Plains, Oregon and spent his final days in a cheap one bedroom in nearby Medford. I don’t know if programs like his have gone away.

But besides the tragic topic how we fail our veterans, there is the question of losing jobs offshore. Whether we lost those jobs because Romney-like assholes found ways to ship them overseas and line their pockets, or was it because we forgot what our jobs really are.

I’ve never worked in a factory, but I have experience with having my job sent away. I used to work at a tech company called @Home.  We had the neatest, coolest, freshest idea of the new millennium: incredibly faster Internet connectivity over a cable TV line. Founded by a wicked smart scientist, Milo Medin, all we had to do is figure out how to take a coaxial cable, make a modem for it and get it into people’s homes.

See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They’re just gonna set there till they rot
‘Cause there’s nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don’t come down here ‘less you’re looking to score
We can’t make it here anymore

abandoned_factory_by_michelebotticelli-d33vrwyDid we sell a fast Internet connection, or innovative technology “solutions”? Because they way we think about our work shapes the extent to which competitors can imitate us and steal market share. What happened over in @Home is we never came out with a next thing. The cool, ultra-fast cable modem connection was a game changer and no one could copy it.

For a while.

Eventually, as our innovation on projects like a Set Top Box stalled, our cable TV partners learned our technology. Eventually AT&T forced some of their people into our operations and shortly later we were shut down. They didn’t need us because we no longer had something they needed.

I saw another example of how imitators can kill a business. In the job I had before, at Pacific Bell Internet we were a hybrid of phone company and tech start-up. In the late 90s we made a phone-company style Business Plan where we sought to figure out how much money we would make and spend for the year.  We had two primary segments, the individual home internet accounts which was thousands of people on their 28.8 modems, and the business segment which was other resellers or corporate users on T1 and T3 circuits. We staked a lot on our ability to sell a large number of circuits at full price and increased volume based on current trends.

What happened was that the T1 circuits we bet on selling started to see increased competition as we went into our sales year. Other fledgling companies were now allowed to buy circuits in bulk (from us, who else) and resell them in the marketplace. As new companies do, they discounted prices to build a buzz and pulled he rug out from under our projections.

Here’s the thing. In both cases, as competition ate our lunch copying what we offered, we s-curvelacked a new, untouchable product that would propel us into new markets where the competition could not follow. As pictured in another blog, companies who deal in innovative products must continually abandon existing markets to the late-entry imitators and let those buzzards clean the carcass while they leap to the Next Big Thing.

You could argue this is what England has failed to do with soccer. They invented the game and were the masters in the 19th century. But as its popularity spread, other countries adopted it and even made improvements to such an extent that only once has England ever won the World Cup. The Barclay’s Premiership, the highest level of soccer played in England, has only about 40% of English players.

When I hear McMurtry’s song my first reaction is sympathy towards the thousands of unemployed blue-collar workers who have suffered through layoffs and plant closings. My second is anger at those who profit from facilitating the migration. But my last thought is, these companies are the ones who have forgotten what America’s sweet spot is. It’s not manufacture of heavy goods that others can imitate and make elsewhere. It’s science, technology, innovation, art and entertainment. For better or worse that’s our niche and I’m starting to think that’s the new job market.

As the author Alvin Toffler wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” His book Future Shock came out in 1970 but it appears we are still absorbing its messages.

for more, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unemployment_in_the_United_States

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2 Responses to What We Can’t Make Here Any More

  1. JohnnyB says:

    Nice thoughts, thanks for sharing them.

    I was right with you up until you wrote “It’s not manufacture of heavy goods that others can imitate and make elsewhere. It’s science, technology, innovation, art and entertainment.” These are not imitated, but they do happen elsewhere. “Where” is kind of the only point now.

    The multi-billion dollar software company I work for, imagined and created here in California, reduces the workforce every couple of years by laying off engineers in the US. All new hires are in other countries where labor – skilled knowledge workers – are cheaper. When brains are the factories, companies hire where the brains are the cheapest. Many of those animated movies these days are “manufactured” outside the United States. Many of the movies and TV productions purported to occur in the United Stares are shot in locations outside the US (my neighbor works in the entertainment industry) primarily to save on labor costs. Innovation is starting to happen elsewhere too.

    They call this the global economy.

    What is stuck in the past is that human services and the institution of government are still based on a national economic model, but corporations moved on a long time ago. Companies are loyal to the dollar, not to a nation or to a people. Jobs go elsewhere and the money with it, leaving the people and the institutions that save them behind.

    “Future Shock” has it right if it includes government and not just people in the list of those that that must adapt, unlearn, and relearn in order to survive. The performance of our national government is showing us, among other things, just how difficult that is.

  2. jimsakeeper1 says:

    Great points all around Johnny. I remember you said you hold a few patents, maybe it is that ability to innovate that has them keeping you around. Like Carl likes to say “You funny. I kill you last.”

    Just saw this in the Fiver today: “”Everybody has been copying the Ajax youth academy, so we want something new again. And in 10 years’ time everybody will copy us again. And we’ll come up with something new once more. We want to be like high jumper [D1ck] Fosbury. For years everybody jumped with their stomach over the bar. From out of nowhere, someone jumped backwards over the bar: Fosbury. Everybody said he was crazy, but two years later everybody used the same technique. That’s the way things are going with Ajax, too” – Ajax coach Frank de Boer seemingly predicts a future in which those crazy Dutch play football backwards.”

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